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PR firm for Putin’s Russia now walking a fine line

In 2006, executives from the public relations firm Ketchum flew to Moscow to secure an account that has since been worth tens of millions of dollars.

President Vladimir Putin of Russia had hired Ketchum to provide advice on public relations before the nation hosted the Group of 8 meeting in St. Petersburg. At the time, Mr. Putin "cared a great deal about what other leaders, especially presidents, thought about him," said Michael A. McFaul, a former United States ambassador to Russia who now teaches at Stanford.

Vladimir Putin
Sasha Mordovets | Getty Images News | Getty Images
Vladimir Putin

Times have changed. The escalating conflict between Russia and Ukraine has turned relations with the United States as frosty as they have been in years. Last week, President Obama said that as a result of the economic sanctions imposed on Russia, the country "is already more isolated than at any time since the Cold War." And the United States ambassador to the United Nations called Russia's actions in Ukraine a "threat to all of our peace and security."

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"There has been a sharp turn in how much they care anymore," Mr. McFaul said. "They decided, O.K., we've had enough of these guys, let's not worry so much about our reputation."

Ketchum, a division of the advertising and marketing giant Omnicom, now finds itself walking an increasingly fine line. It once had three dozen employees in at least six countries working with the Russia account. Now it has cut back to about 10, said Kathy Jeavons, a Ketchum partner in Washington who heads the Russia account, citing the difficulties of the "global environment." And its deal to represent Russia's giant government-controlled energy company Gazprom recently ended because, she said, Gazprom had decided to focus on Europe.

The Ketchum staff members who continue to work with Russia in Moscow, Washington, New York, London and Brussels must avoid being seen as defending acts contrary to American interests but continue to provide some luster for a lucrative, and even prestigious, client.

Ms. Jeavons spoke publicly for the first time generally about the account, but declined to comment on specifics. Asked whether she or her staff members had qualms about representing Russia, or whether the account might be terminated, she said, "We constantly look at and evaluate our interaction with them, as we do with any client." Ketchum's primary aim, she said, is to promote investment in Russia. Dialogue between the United States and Russia, she said, is "a reality of the connectivity of the global economy and financial markets."

Read MoreRussia's U.S. PR firm distances itself from Ukraine dispute

Ketchum is far from alone in representing foreign governments and their leaders. In 2011, the Washington public relations firm Brown Lloyd James helped arrange a profile in Vogue of Asma al-Assad, the wife of Syria's president, Bashar al-Assad. The story, headlined "A Rose in the Desert," was later removed from Vogue's website and the magazine's editor, Anna Wintour, issued a statement deploring the actions of the Assad government.

Another firm, Sanitas International, represents both Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani, foes in an election in Afghanistan, according to State Department filings. China has 11 different public relations representatives.

Public relations experts said there was a long history of American firms working for controversial foreign governments. Guy J. Golan, a professor of public relations and public diplomacy at Syracuse, compared Ketchum's business relationship with Russia to that of public relations firms who worked for tobacco companies as the dangers of smoking were revealed.

"There are some who would argue that Russia is just as legitimate a client as Philip Morris cigarettes," Mr. Golan said.

From Russia's standpoint, the Ketchum relationship makes perfect sense, Mr. McFaul said. He pointed to the Winter Olympics in Sochi this year, which cost tens of billions of dollars and were in part a public relations exercise. The Games were seen, Mr. McFaul said, as a way "to introduce the new Russia to the world." And Ketchum's fees are tiny in comparison with a production like Sochi, so it is logical to retain the company to continue to help with its image and business interests.

Angus Roxburgh, a former Ketchum consultant and journalist for the BBC and The Economist, recounted his experiences working with the company in his 2011 book, "The Strongman: Vladimir Putin and the Struggle for Russia."

Ketchum worked with members of the Russian leader's inner circle, Mr. Roxburgh wrote. The Russian officials, he said, were initially convinced they could pay for better coverage, or intimidate journalists into it. They were eventually persuaded to take reporters to dinner instead. But after the murder of the journalist Anna Politkovskaya, a critic of the Kremlin who was assassinated in her Moscow apartment block under mysterious circumstances, they stopped engaging with the news media, because they did not want to face questions about her death.

"As the Politkovskaya murder was followed by the Litvinenko murder," Mr. Roxburgh wrote, referring to another mysterious death of a Kremlin critic in London, "and then by the Russian invasion of Georgia, I began to wonder whether the very reason the Kremlin had decided to take on a Western P.R. agency was because they knew in advance that their image was about to nose-dive."

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The company still works with Mr. Putin's closest advisers, according to current and former employees of Ketchum. Some of its work is relatively mundane, like fielding press inquiries for Russian officials and liaising with pro-Russia groups. In the State Department filings that detail Ketchum's work, prominent names like Arnold Schwarzenegger and Henry Kissinger appear alongside policy analysts, politicians and United States government officials. In the filings, the company said it worked with Time magazine to have Mr. Putin named the magazine's Person of the Year in 2007.

Ketchum also monitors press clippings, and provides a daily analysis of perspectives on Russia from Washington, Brussels and New York. It tracks sentiment on Capitol Hill, particularly the congressional committees that might affect Russia. It writes strategic plans on specific issues.

Mr. Roxburgh, who did not respond to multiple requests for an interview, said to The Daily Beast this year that Ketchum's aim, to make Russia more attractive to investors, "means helping them disguise all the issues that make it unattractive: human rights, invasions of neighboring countries, etc."

During Russia's war with Georgia in 2008, there was a movement in Ketchum's New York office to drop Russia as a client, according to a former Ketchum employee who requested anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the firm. Those who expressed concern were placated by the Washington office, the employee said.

Ms. Jeavons declined to address internal discussions at Ketchum. And while she defended her firm's work with Russia, she acknowledged that it was a complicated relationship.

"Where we can help facilitate communication, at the end of the day that can only help," she said. "I mean this is why I'm in this business. It's not always perfect, not always black and white, but I think it helps."

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